By John A. Hill and Jasper Ewing Brady in 1898
Telegraphers are, as a rule, a very nomadic class, wandering hither and thither like a chip buffeted about on the ocean. Their pathway is not always one of roses, and many times their feet are torn by the jagged rocks of adversity. I was no different from any of the rest, neither better nor worse, and many a night I have slept with only the deep blue sky for a covering, and it may be added—sotto voce—it is not a very warm blanket on a cold night. ‘Tis said, an operator of the first class can always procure work, but there are times when even the best of them are on their uppers. For instance, when winter’s chill blasts sweep across the hills and dales of the north, like swarms of swallows, operators flit southwards to warmer climes, and for this reason, the supply is often greater than the demand.
I was a “flitter” of the first water, and after I had been in Fort Worth for a very short while I became possessed of a desire to see something of the far-famed border towns along the Rio Grande frontier. So I went south to a town called Hallville and found it a typical tough frontier town. I landed there all right enough and then proceeded to gently strand.
Work was not to be had, money I had none, and my predicament can be imagined. Many of you have doubtless been on the frontier and know what these places are. There was the usual number of gambling dens, dance halls, and saloons, and of course, they had their variety theatre. Ever go into one of the latter places? The first thing that greets your eye is a big black and white sign “Buy a drink and see the show.” Inside, at one end, is the long wooden bar, presided over by some thug of the highest order, with a big diamond stuck in the center of a broad expanse of white shirt front. At the other end is the so-called stage, while scattered about indiscriminately are the tables and chairs. The air is filled—yea, reeking—with the fumes of bad whiskey, stale beer, and the odor of foul-smelling cheap tobacco smoke, and through all this haze the would-be “show,” goes on, and the applause is manifested by whistles, catcalls, the pounding of feet on the floor and glasses on the tables. Occasionally some artist will appear who does not seem to strike the popular fancy and will be greeted by a beer glass or empty bottle being fired at his or her head.
Now, at the time of which I speak, my prospects were very slim, and as nature had endowed me with a fair singing voice, I had just about made up my mind to go to the Palace Variety Theatre and ask for a position as a vocalist. I could, at least, sing as well as some of the theatrical bygones that graced the place. The price of admission in one of these places is simply the price of a drink. I felt in my pocket and found that I had one solitary lonely dime, and swinging aside the green baize door, I entered.
“Gimme a beer,” I said laying down my dime. A small glass, four-fifths froth and one-fifth beer, was skated at me by the bartender from the other end of the counter, and my dime was raked into the till.
Then I stood around like a bump on a log, trying to screw my courage up to ask the blear-eyed, red-nosed Apollo for a job. Some hack voiced old chromo was trying to warble “Do they miss me at home,” and mentally I thought “if he had ever sung like that when he was at home they were probably glad he had left.”
The scene was sickening and disgusting to me, but empty stomachs stand not on ceremony, so I turned around and was just about to accost the proprietor when Biff! I felt a stinging whack between my shoulders. Quickly I faced about, all the risibility of my red-headed nature coming to the surface, and there I saw a big handsome chap standing in front of me. Six feet tall, broad-shouldered, straight, lithe limbs, denoting Herculean strength, a massive head poised on a well shaped neck, two cold blue eyes, and a face covered by a bushy brown beard; dressed in well-fitting clothes, trousers tucked in the tops of shiny black boots, long Prince Albert coat and a broad sombrero set rakishly on one side of his head. Such was the man who hit me in the back.
“Hello, youngster, what’s your name?”
Rubbing my lame shoulder, I said, “Well it might be Jones and it might be Smith, but it ain’t, and I don’t know what affair it is of yours, anyway.”
“Oh! come now, boy, don’t get huffy. You’ve got an honest face and appear to be in trouble. What is it? Out with it. You’re evidently a tenderfoot and this hell-hole of vice isn’t a place for a boy of your years. What’s your name? Come over here at this table and sit down and tell me.”
Something in his bluff hearty manner gave me hope and after sitting down, I said.
“My name is Martin Bates. I’m a telegraph operator by profession and blew into this town this morning on my uppers. I can’t get work and I haven’t a red cent to my name. It is necessary for me to live, and as I can sing a little bit, I came in here to see if I could get a job warbling. I won’t beg or steal, and there is no one here I can borrow from. There’s my story. Not a very pleasant one is it?”
“There may have been worse. How long since you’ve had anything to eat.”
“Nine o’clock this morning,” I grimly replied.
“Good Lord, that’s twelve hours ago. Come on with me out of here and I’ll fix you up.”
Meekly I followed my new found friend. I was sick at heart, weary and worn out in body and I didn’t care a rap whether school kept or not; anything would be better than my present situation. He took me about three blocks up the main street and we went into a suite of beautifully furnished rooms. He rang a bell, a darkey came in, and it wasn’t long before I had a lunch in front of me fit for the gods, and I may add it didn’t take me many minutes to get outside of it. My friend watched me narrowly while I was eating, and when I had finished he said,
“Now youngster, you’re all tired out. You go to bed in the next room and get a good night’s sleep. In the morning we’ll see what we can do for you, but one thing is certain, you’re not going into that vile hole of a Palace Theatre again. Somewhere in this world, you have a father and mother who are praying for you this night. Don’t make a slip in your pathway in life and break their hearts. Everything is safe and quiet here and no one will disturb you until I come in the morning.”
There was a peculiar earnestness in his voice as he spoke that was very convincing, and as he rose to go out, I meekly said,
“What’s your name, mister?”
“Bill Bradley,” he answered with a queer smile. “Now don’t you ask any more questions tonight,” and with that, he was gone.
I went to bed almost sick from my exposure and lack of food, and just as the old sandman of childhood’s happy days began to sprinkle his grains in my eyes, I heard, way off in the distance, a peculiar click and a drawling voice calling off some numbers. “Four.” “Sixteen.” “Thirty-three.” “Seventy-eight.” “Ten.” “Twenty-six,” and then, a great shout arose and someone called out “KENO.” Ah! I was near a gambling house, but I was too tired to care, nature asserted herself, and I gently crossed the river into the land of Nod.